Does Your Child Have a Splinter? Here’s What To Do

Kids are bound to get splinters. Here are tips and tricks to handle splinter removal on children and when to seek medical intervention.

A family walking in nature and and pulling the splinter out of the child's palm.

Irina Polonina / Stocksy

Raising toddlers and young children often includes endless energy, curious minds, and the occasional mishap. Besides cuts, bruises, and burns, the dreaded splinter is another common misadventure.

Experts explain how parents can deal with splinters in a calm and efficient manner—and when splinters may be a cause for concern.

What Are Splinters?

Splinters are sharp pieces of wood, glass, or similar material that gets lodged inside a person's skin. Splinters can cause pain, redness, and swelling around the affected area. They may also lead to infections in young children if not treated properly.

Jennifer Genuardi, M.D., an internist and pediatrician in Bronx, New York, says splinters are a common injury in children, especially during the warmer months when they are actively playing outdoors, doing more arts and crafts, or wearing less protective clothing and footwear.

Is It OK To Leave a Splinter In?

Human skin is meant to protect us from infections, so any break in the skin poses a potential risk. If the splinter is made of organic material, Dr. Genuardi explains the body will naturally dissolve it over time. However, for other materials that may be embedded in a child's skin, it's advisable to remove them because they can cause inflammation and bumps. 

If the splinter is deeply lodged, it can allow bacteria to be introduced into the layers of skin causing infection, though the risk of tetanus is generally low unless the foreign object is contaminated. This is a good time as any to ensure the child's tetanus immunization is up to date.

Besides infection and swelling, there can be other consequences in children. "Depending on the size of the splinter, if left in the skin it can be disruptive to other body functions, like walking, so some children may appear to limp even though the root cause is a splinter," explains Christina Johns, M.D., M.Ed., FAAP, pediatric emergency doctor and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatric Care in Annapolis, Maryland.

How To Get a Splinter Out

If your child has a splinter, follow these steps for removal:

  • Clean the affected area. Before doing anything else, wash the area with antibacterial soap and pat it dry. Make sure to wash your hands too to avoid getting any bacteria in the wound.
  • Inspect. Take a close look at the splinter to understand its direction and position. You might need a magnifying glass for ones that are really small, explains Dr. Johns.
  • Sterilize your removal tool. Make sure that whatever tools (i.e. tweezers or needle) you are using are sterile and sanitized. If using a needle, Dr. Genuardi recommends using a flame and alcohol swab to sterilize. For a pair of tweezers, she suggests using rubbing alcohol to clean them.
  • Grab the splinter. If the end of the splinter is sticking out, use tweezers to carefully grab and pull it out. Avoid squeezing or breaking the splinter as it can cause removal to be more difficult.
  • Treat the area. As soon as the splinter is removed, says Dr. Johns, disinfect the wound with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, pat dry, apply petroleum jelly, and cover with a Band-Aid. The bandage should be replaced after a day and encourage your child to avoid scratching or picking at the area to promote healing and prevent rashes.
  • Keep watch. Keep an eye on it for signs of infection, which include pus (discharge) or redness in the impacted area.

How To Bring a Deep Splinter to the Surface

If the splinter is fully submerged under the skin, use a needle placed at an angle to gently scrape and pierce the skin near the end of the splinter. This will expose its end and make it easier to use the tweezers to pull it out.

What Else May Draw Out a Splinter?

If your child is nervous of tweezers or needles, you may be able to draw out the splinter using Epsom salt. Dissolve Epsom salt in warm water and place the affected area in the soak for about 10 minutes, says Dr. Genuardi. It's meant to soften the skin and loosen the splinter.

While methods like using sticky tape and honey float around, experts aren’t convinced. “I have never seen either of those two methods work reliably,” says Dr. Johns. “What makes me concerned about the honey method is that it could cause the splinter to break down and disintegrate, thereby making it impossible to remove in entirety, and the health care team ends up having to dig it out in pieces, which can be uncomfortable."

When To Get Medical Help for a Splinter

While most splinters can be handled at home, certain situations may warrant a medical professional's attention, especially if the splinter is deeply embedded and hard to reach, or in circumstances when there's pain. "If the area gets red, swollen, or tender, please seek medical care for evaluation," says Dr. Genuardi. Bleeding or pus are two other instances where medical attention is likely needed.

Also, pain from a splinter should go down substantially after removal, but keep monitoring the area. "If pain begins to increase that is abnormal and needs evaluation," adds Dr. Genuardi.

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